There are lots of church stereotypes out there. A new book, What Americans Really Believe, uncovered a bunch of surprises which will debunk a number of myths. I was most interested in chapter 5, whose subtitle is "supersizing the faith."
Author Rodney Stark is an academic with very impressive credentials. As part of a national research project done through Gallup, his university surveyed a bunch of Christians and then sorted the findings according to the size of church they attended. He then compared the two extremes: churches with attendances under 100 and churches with attendances over 1,000. He also notes that no interpretation would be changed if congregations of all sizes in between were included in his analysis.
It turns out that as church size increase, people's beliefs are more certain. For example, on the question of whether heaven absolutely exists, 92% of people in larger churches said yes, while 79% in smaller churches said yes. Does hell absolutely exists? The replies were 90% and 69%.
What about people's practices? Those in the larger churches attend services weekly or more often (46% and 39%), more of them tithe (46% and. 36%), and more of them attend a Bible-study group (52% and 43%). So personal commitment is higher with church size.
Is there a lack of intimacy as churches grow larger? When asked if half or more of their friends attend their congregations, survey respondents said yes 41% for larger churches and 25% for smaller churches. The same point is made when when the opposite angle is taken: do they have no friends in their congregations? Agreement was 12% and 22%.
What about sharing your faith with others? Again the numbers are noticeably different:
In the past month did you:
Witness/share your faith with friends
Megachurches: 83 percent
Small congregations: 52 percent
Witness/share your faith with strangers
Megachurches: 53 percent
Small congregations: 35 percent
What about volunteer work inside and outside the church? That too increases with size:
I do volunteer work:
for the community, not through my place of worship
Megachurches: 40 percent
Small congregations: 31 percent
for the community, through my place of worship
Megachurches: 41 percent
Small congregations: 34 percent
During the past month participated in faith-based programs not affiliated or sponsored by a congregation (e.g., prison ministry, homeless shelter, etc.)
Megachurches: 18 percent
Small congregations: 9 percent
The point is not to bang smaller churches but to shatter some myths. What it tells me is that churches can have confidence that as they grow, they don't have to wimp out on their convictions, their spiritual disciplines, their volunteer service, or their sense of closeness and intimacy.
My doctoral dissertation, based on another nationwide study, confirmed many of the same things. So does the book, Beyond Megachurch Myths. Now if only newspaper reporters and certain religious leaders would stop concluding that growing churches all become spectator arenas.
On the Web: leadnet.org
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network and co-author of 19 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.